San Francisco Jazz by Medea Isphording Bern - Read Online
San Francisco Jazz
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San Francisco is probably best known for its hills, ubiquitous fog, dungeness crab and the Golden Gate Bridge. But jazz music's threads are similarly woven into the fabric of the city and its environs. Whether performed in renowned clubs like So Different, Jimbo's Bop City, Black Hawk, and the Jazz Workshop or in halls like the Primalon Ballroom and Great American Music Hall, jazz has infused the city from the Barbary Coast to the Fillmore, thrilling audiences for over a century. San Franciscans have grooved to and incubated scores of jazz acts, hot and cool, raucous and contemplative. That tradition continues today.
Published: Arcadia Publishing on
ISBN: 9781439649282
List price: $12.99
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San Francisco Jazz - Medea Isphording Bern

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The first time I remember hearing a trumpet solo that propelled me out of my seat, I was six years old. Al Hirt’s hirsute cheeks and wide grin called from the baby blue cover of his album Cotton Candy, on which he grips his trumpet as if it were a cone, a pink cloud of confection on top. I propped the album cover up in front of my red-and-white vinyl record player, pretending that Hirt was blowing his horn in appreciation of my sophisticated, interpretive dance steps. As Art Blakey said, You don’t have to be a musician to understand jazz. All you have to do is be able to feel.

It was something about a horn—the sensuous licks, the versatility, the way a horn player can deliver multiple octaves of emotion in a single phrase—that drew me in at first. Then, as I listened to other groups, largely traditional jazz standards from my parents’ collection from their days working in New Orleans, the dialogue between the musicians started to intrigue me: how a saxophone player could play a few bars and the piano player would answer, with the drummer tapping his two cents. Then everyone is talking at once, the whole band shimmering with sound, playing as one. My young mind was just tuning in to the Beatles, on the cusp of total immersion in the Monkees, and shielded from the Rolling Stones by parents who did not quite grasp that the Stones were really Delta bluesmen, and discovering Al Hirt and jazz forever after informed my musical proclivities.

The first use of the term jazz in print occurs in conjunction with a 1913 article about the San Francisco Seals baseball team by Scoop Gleason. It was meant to convey a sense of pep, or spirit, and derives from the Irish word teas, pronounced jass, which means passionate or enthusiastic. In a column featured in the April 5 issue of the San Francisco bulletin that same year, Ernest Hopkins remarks on the onomatopoetic quality of the new word and wrote that jazz is at home in a bar or a ballroom; it is a true American. And yet, the early pioneers of our unique American music, in its many iterations—from ragtime to Dixieland to bebop and beyond—felt constrained by the term. They believed that it was a moniker imposed by nonmusicians, mainly white, to identify any kind of nonclassical music. Duke Ellington said calling black music jazz was akin to using a four-letter word: By and large, jazz always has been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with. The word ‘jazz’ has been part of the problem.

Like all art forms, music is organic and subject to interpretation by its composers and its performers. The original ragtime blues that forms the foundation of jazz has taken on the patina of legions of musicians who added their own techniques and inspirations to craft a uniquely American sound. In the course of researching this book, I found that the history of the jazz scene in San Francisco is really many histories, overlapped, intertwined, branching out, and circling back. Musicians tour, so naturally, San Francisco’s clubs and halls hosted the famous from near, like Dave Brubeck, and far, like Charlie Mingus. And many more musicians who started their careers here or adopted San Francisco as their home earned both fame and adoration, like Turk Murphy and Norma Teagarden.

The deep roots of jazz also spurred countless festivals, including the venerated Monterey Jazz Festival, which Jimmy Lyons founded in 1958 to support and showcase modern jazz music. Jazz festivals still dot the Bay Area cities and towns, ebbing and flowing, traditional jazz or Latin jazz or soul jazz.

The history of San Francisco’s jazz music scene continues to be written today. Randall Kline started SFJAZZ in 1982. He produced shows in the city for decades before finally realizing his dream in 2013 and opening a performing arts center dedicated to jazz at the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets in the heart of the Civic Center. The SFJAZZ Center has quickly become the center of both contemporary and experimental jazz, presenting revered greats like saxophonist Wayne Shorter and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson as well as the brilliant teenagers who perform with the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars. The stories of these bright young men and women will make up the next chapters in the history of jazz in the Bay Area.

Whether you like your jazz served up traditional style, bounced with a little bebop, blinding hot or hep cat cool, the music that fires your soul has rumbled and roared through San Francisco, leaving a cascade of memories and paving the way for whatever sound the new generations will add to its sensual aural stew. What appears in these pages is merely a taste.



Jazz music first appeared in San Francisco during the bawdy Barbary Coast years. Pacific Street between Kearny and Battery Streets formed the epicenter of all that was exciting, raucous, entertaining, and sometimes dangerous. Known as Terrific Street, these blocks boasted clubs and dance halls like the Hippodrome, the Bear, Spider Kelly’s, and the Thalia, each with marquees that drenched the night sky with electric light. Nimble, sometimes interracial (black-and-tan) hoofers first danced the turkey trot. Sid LeProtti’s So Different Jazz Band entertained locals and tourists, dignitaries and celebrities at Lew Purcell’s So Different Saloon. Jelly Roll Morton entertained the hopeful and the hapless with piano rags at his Jupiter Club. All the joints jumped with music, dance, and an undercurrent of vice, a sort of unofficial West Coast Storyville.

The 1906 earthquake leveled and scorched large swaths of the city, including the Barbary Coast. Fate, a fortuitously placed hose, and a convenient wind shift spared Hotaling’s, the Jackson Street distillery that kept saloons awash in spirits, inspiring an oft-quoted quip: If as they say, God spanked the town for being over frisky, / Why did he burn the churches down / And spare Hotaling’s whisky?

Terrific Street bounced back quickly, buzzing again with cabarets, dance halls, and